APR 16, 2015 07:45 AM PDT

How Oxytocin Acts on Brain Cells to Prompt Social Behaviors

WRITTEN BY: Will Hector
Neuroscientists at NYU Langone Medical Center have discovered how the powerful brain hormone oxytocin acts on individual brain cells to prompt specific social behaviors -- findings that could lead to a better understanding of how oxytocin and other hormones could be used to treat behavioral problems resulting from disease or trauma to the brain. The findings were published in the journal Nature online yesterday.

Until now, researchers say oxytocin -- sometimes called the "pleasure hormone" -- has been better known for its role in inducing sexual attraction and orgasm, regulating breast feeding and promoting maternal-infant bonding. But its precise levers for controlling social behaviors were not known.

"Our findings redefine oxytocin as something completely different from a 'love drug,' but more as an amplifier and suppressor of neural signals in the brain," says study senior investigator Robert Froemke, PhD, an assistant professor at NYU Langone and its Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine. "We found that oxytocin turns up the volume of social information processed in the brain. This suggests that it could one day be used to treat social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, speech and language disorders, and even psychological issues stemming from child abuse."

In experiments in mice, Dr. Froemke and his team mapped oxytocin to unique receptor cells in the left side of the brain's cortex. They found that the hormone controls the volume of "social information" processed by individual neurons, curbing so-called excitatory or inhibitory signals -- and immediately determining how female mice with pups responded to cries for help and attention.

In separate experiments in adult female mice with no pups -- and hence no experience with elevated oxytocin levels -- adding extra oxytocin into their "virgin" brains led these mice to quickly recognize the barely audible distress calls of another mother's pups recently removed from their home nest. These adult mice quickly learned to set about fetching the pups, picking them up by the scruffs of their necks and returning them to the nest -- all as if they were the pups' real mother.

This learned behavior was permanent, researchers say; the mice with no offspring continued to retrieve pups even when their oxytocin receptors were later blocked.

According to lead study investigator Bianca Marlin, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at NYU Langone: "It was remarkable to watch how adding oxytocin shifted animal behavior, as mice that didn't know how to perform a social task could suddenly do it perfectly."

Key to the researchers' efforts to track oxytocin at work in individual brain cells was use of an antibody developed at NYU Langone that specifically binds to oxytocin-receptor proteins on each neuron, allowing the cells to be seen with a microscope.

"Our future research includes further experiments to understand the natural conditions, beyond childbirth, under which oxytocin is released in the brain," Dr. Froemke adds.

Follow Will Hector: @WriteCompassion

(Sources: NYU Langone Medical Center; Science Daily)
About the Author
  • Will Hector practices psychotherapy at Heart in Balance Counseling Center in Oakland, California. He has substantial training in Attachment Theory, Hakomi Body-Centered Psychotherapy, Psycho-Physical Therapy, and Formative Psychology. To learn more about his practice, click here: http://www.heartinbalancetherapy.com/will-hector.html
You May Also Like
DEC 06, 2019
Drug Discovery & Development
DEC 06, 2019
Peptide-Based Therapeutics Advances Alzheimer Disease Research
Affecting 44 million individuals globally, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a form of dementia characterized by loss of brain cells, inflammation and vasc...
DEC 06, 2019
Neuroscience
DEC 06, 2019
How 'Magic Mushrooms' Can Help Smokers Quit
The Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine does not look like your average doctor's office - there are couches, paintings of natural scenery, and glowing...
DEC 06, 2019
Neuroscience
DEC 06, 2019
Alcohol Consumption Linked to Epigenetic Changes in Brain Memory System
For a recovering alcoholic, walking past a familiar bar or attending social events are often challenging situations. In the past, stimuli such as the smell, sight, and sounds of a bar become...
DEC 06, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
DEC 06, 2019
Familial Alzheimer's Gene Found to Regulate Nerve Development
An international team of scientists has now identified a process that plays a critical role in the growth of one part of neurons, the axon....
DEC 06, 2019
Clinical & Molecular DX
DEC 06, 2019
Opioid Addiction Can be Controlled Using an In-Brain Chip Technology: First U.S. Clinical Trial
Opioid addiction is a long-lasting (chronic) disease that can cause major health, social, and economic problems. Opioids are a class of drugs that act...
DEC 06, 2019
Cell & Molecular Biology
DEC 06, 2019
Scientists Find a Non-Invasive Way to Detect Prions
Misfolded proteins, also called prions, can cause a host of problems, including neurodegenerative disorders....
Loading Comments...